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This is “Dots,” VolleyballMag.com’s weekly look at 10 things in club volleyball, past or present, that interest me and hopefully will interest you. Look for Dots every Tuesday through Junior Nationals this summer.
• Qualifier season is OVER! The final of 12 national qualifiers concluded Sunday in Reno at Far Westerns.
There was happiness; teams that had been vying all spring to get into the elite fields for Junior Nationals and were finally able to celebrate their achievements. There was determination; teams that fell short of their ultimate goals were re-focused on new goals.
The beauty of club volleyball is that the season doesn’t have to end in late April. With so many divisions at both Junior Nationals and AAU Nationals, including those for which no qualification is needed; there is room for everyone to have a summer, season-ending convention center experience in front of friends, family and hundreds of college coaches.
Indeed, my friend, Kevin Hitt, wrote me this week to emphasize how valuable it is that USA Volleyball has a division at Junior Nationals — the Patriot Division — that does not require teams to qualify.
Each year, parents of players who want to be recruited ask if college coaches ever have recruited players from teams in that division for their age group, he shared.
“I know the answer is ‘Yes,’ but every year people ask,” Hitt continued. “I know it to be a very worthwhile division.”
• Let’s turn now to the Open divisions that have been our primary focus this qualifier season. In 17 Open at Far Westerns, Club V 17 Ren Reed, from Utah, won its second National Qualifier in four attempts. Club V defeated Houston Skyline 17 Royal in a straight-set championship match, avenging a loss from the day before.
Reed Carlson’s squad previously had won at the Salt Lake City Showdown. Club V placed third and T-5 in its other two qualifiers, evidence that it will be a medal contender at Junior Nationals in Indianapolis in late June.
Club V won in Reno despite losing matches, both in three sets, on the first two days.
“We went into Reno with the goal of winning on the last day,” Carlson said.
Club V lost to eventual qualifier SynergyForce 17 Jeff on Friday and to previous qualifier (and top seed) Houston Skyline on Saturday.
“We evaluated each of those third sets and realized our level of assertive play dropped,” Carlson explained. “We decided to stay uncomfortably assertive the final day so it would be there when we needed a big play.”
It was. The club was focused on finishing, something it did not do in close losses at Red Rock Rave and Lone Star, which kept it out of championship matches in those qualifiers.
“We have been preparing to be stronger on the last day and to show up for each point,” Carlson said. “The girls responded and they finished against a talented and incredibly well coached Houston Skyline team. Needless to say, it was a big step in the right direction in our preparation for Nationals.”
• AZ Storm Elite 17 Thunder (third), SynergyForce 17 Jeff (fourth) and Absolute 17 Black (fifth) earned the three Open bids in 17 Open at Far Westerns.
Storm lost once each day and was taken to three two others times, but did enough to secure a spot in the Open field in Indy. Aaron Payne’s team clinched its bid with a 15-13 Game 3 win over NorCal 17 Black in Gold pool play. Here’s how Payne described the weekend:
“To be successful in high-level open qualifiers, you need a roster that includes on and off court players and supportive parents. We were down two middles with a torn ACL and fractured fibula and down a coach with a family personal matter. ([Club director] Terri [Spann] made the trip as assistant and hype woman for the girls) but a total team effort was going to be crucial for us. The bench was full of energy and this was truly the first weekend where we stayed balanced in emotion and play all weekend. Kamryn Gibadlo (Utah) and Ali Weist were solid all weekend on the pins, both going six rotations for every point of the weekend. OH/RS Sarah Wadsworth (Marshall) controlled the right side all weekend as well, stepping in for ball control and adding a front and back row threat. Tatum Longnecker was the primary setter and floor captain, running a balanced offense with middles Ella Lomigora and Paige Hoeder. Makenzie Schoenhardt was dialed in both in serve receive and defense at libero for the entire tournament. This team has really forged bonds through adversity and injuries. Every player on our roster is truly capable and yet selfless … that’s when you win!”
SynergyForce’s effort included wins over Club V Ren Reed and Club V 17 Ren Matthew, both of which had previously qualified. Jeff Deter’s team was able to bring senior OH Morgan Colyer (Oregon) down from the 18s for this tournament. She and fellow outside Jahniya Jackson fueled a potent offense orchestrated by setters Katelyn Cochran and Jordyn Deter. Deter said it was unknown whether Colyer would be able to participate at Junior Nationals in June.
Absolute failed to remain contention after Day 1 in its first two qualifiers, so a second place start in Pool 1 was just what the doctor ordered.
The team was led by strong passing and defense by Baylor commit Tehani Ulufatu and Johns Hopkins commit Simone Adam.
“After a slow start to the season, this team has continued to improve every practice,” coach Jake Spain said. “They are committed to one another and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Absolute went three sets in five of its nine matches. The Northern California squad team was 3-2 in those tests, none more important than the match with NorCal for the final bid. Absolute won, 23-25, 25-15, 15-13. It was a brutal loss for NorCal, which had two chances to earn a bid and lost both by a 15-13 Game 3 score.
• Vision 16 Gold, which qualified at Red Rock Rave, went 10-0 to capture the 16 Open division. Led by freshman setter Maya Baker, Vision went 3-0 against the teams that qualified, Houston Skyline 16 Royal, San Gabriel Elite 16 RoShamBo and Oregon Juniors 16-1 Gold, with only San Gabriel taking the San Jose club to a third set.
Houston Skyline survived a 2-3 start and then won five in a row, including a revenge win in three over OJVA and an 18-16 Game 3 win over Absolute 16 Black; to reach the championship match.
San Gabriel’s qualifying effort was sparked by eight straight wins to open the tournament, all but one in straight sets.
Taylor Yu, Lauren Lynch and Ingrid Zahn were top performers over the weekend for San Gabriel.
“This team has been working hard in the gym, fine tuning their craft, and it showed this weekend,” said coach Hannah Tedrow. “This weekend was a team effort-they stayed together and trusted one another and that is why they were successful.”
OJVA qualified by outlasting both Rocky Select 16 National and Absolute in a Gold pool tiebreaker for second after all three teams finished 1-2 in regular matches. Terri Jo Schlatter’s team first beat Rocky, 15-12, and then dispatched Absolute, 15-9. OJVA finished 5-5 in regulation matches. The team lost to Vision and San Gabriel and split matches with Houston Skyline.
“So proud of this team for the fight they showed this weekend to get this bid,” Schlatter said. “We dropped two matches in our Gold pool that we thought put us out of bid contention. But then we ended in a three-way tie for second place. We were all 1-2. Because the second place team was going to play in a match that would give two bids, we had to play off the three-way tie. My girls responded and played with such great energy! I was very proud of how hard they fought for it. It was the first time any of them had gotten an Open bid.”
Setter Elizabeth Levick, libero Halle Reiter, MB Hailey Heytfelt and freshman OH Sydney Dreves led the way for OJs, which qualified a 16s team for Open for the first time in club history.
• Arizona Revolution 15 Premier overcame a Day 2 loss to Nebraska Elite 15 Matrix to win the 15 Open division and qualify for Junior Nationals. Revolution’s last four matches all went three, including a 15-12 results and two that were decided at deuce!
Revolution’s head coach is Nicole Peterson, one of my favorite players from her time playing at Jesuit HS in Portland and for Excel NW.
“This weekend was awesome for my girls,” Peterson said. “We have been learning a lot of lessons this season and especially on how every point matters. This weekend the girls were able to really feel that sense of urgency that they have to give everything they have for every point, and it paid off. They all hustled and played with so much heart. Tristen Raymond and Lexi King led the offense and my two liberos, Ava Lambert and Ella Petcu, kept us in a lot of games with passing and defense. Payton Whalen, my right side, made some fantastic block moves, especially late in the tournament to really set the tone on defense as well. Ultimately, my girls were a unit and had so much fun being able to compete with some of the best of the best in 15 Open.”
Previously qualified teams occupied the 2-4 positions, leaving Coast 15 Luis and Idaho Crush 15 Bower to qualify in a tie for fifth place.
Setter Joey Salas and OHs Ava Poinsett and Julia Marinesi sparked Coast to six straight wins to open the event.
“We had to overcome injuries, system changes and lack of depth,” noted coach Luis Cuatok. “The team played well and showed their grittiness and heart to earn their bid this weekend. Proud of their accomplishment.”
ID Crush went 5-3 on the weekend to qualify. The team went 1-2 versus previously qualified teams, but otherwise lost only to Coast on Day 1, 18-16 in the third.
• The three bids doled out in 17 Open at Far Westerns completes the 36-team field for Junior Nationals. Three bids were conferred at each of the 12 qualifiers, leaving no room for an teams to get in via At-Large consideration.
That’s bad news for Top Select 17 Elite Blue, which, at No. 23 in the AES computerized club rankings, is the highest ranked team hoping to be at Junior Nationals not to qualify.
Top Select tried to qualify twice, placing ninth at Sunshine and seventh at Big South.
“In both qualifiers we were one match away from getting a bid,” said coach Blake Rawlins. “We were so close! Just couldn’t make it happen. This was definitely an Open team!”
Top Select did not play in its regional tournament. “Our team was Open or nothing,” Rawlins said. It will close it season at AAU Nationals in 17 Open.
• In both 16 Open and 15 Open, there is one At-Large bid available.
In 16 Open, it appears there are two teams worthy of consideration, Six Pack 16 from Iowa and Arizona Storm Elite 16 Thunder.
Six Pack is 44-11 on the year, ranked No. 16 in the country according to AES and finished seventh or better in its three qualifiers.
“I believe we have a strong claim with our competitive play in three qualifiers,” noted coach Megan Timmins. “This same group of kids played 15 Open at Nationals last year so have the experience. We would be honored to continue competing this season at the highest possible level for continued improvement for their high level collegiate careers.”
The problem for Six Pack is that Storm has a resume that is as good. Storm is 43-19 on the season, ranked No. 19 in the AES rankings and finished fourth and seventh in its two qualifiers. Indeed, Storm finished in Gold in every tournament it played this year, including Triple Crown, where it placed seventh in the Elite division. The team has five wins against the qualified field.
“We finished the AZ Power League season in Division 1 with the top 8 teams in the state,” said coach Bryan Dell’Amico. “We were the only 16s team in Division 1. I think we have a strong case for AZ Storm 16 Thunder and the open At-Large bid.”
In 15 Open, it seems evident that Alamo 15 Premier, which is 42-15 and ranked No. 20 nationally by AES, should get the one At-Large bid. The team had top 10 showings in two qualifiers and placed 11th at the very competitive Lone Star Classic.
“Alamo 15P is a very competitive and aggressive talented team,” coach Debra Gonzalez said. “We just haven’t been able to get over the hump to qualify. Our starting and aggressive Middle Aniya Hall suffered an ankle injury before our last qualifier…the Lone Star Classic. We definitely noticed early on that Aniya was going to be missed; however, the team fought hard and once again we fell short of qualifying. Alamo 15P would be ecstatic if we were given the At-Large Bid in Open. It would give the team the opportunity to compete with those Open teams again and possibly this time have a different outcome.”
• In doing At-Large research, it was hard not to notice that Elevation, out of Cincinnati, did not qualify any of its 15-18s teams in Open this year.
“That’s a first for a long time,” noted club director John Paul Case. “Not a sign of anything that I’d attribute it to specifically. Everyone gets injuries and sickness. It’s ironic actually because we have more kids with size this year than normal at 15’s -17’s. Our 15’s have a few projects that will make great 17 year old players and beyond. The 16’s and 17’s simply lost the wrong matches at Qualifiers and both deserve to be in Open. But that’s why they play the games!”
Case noted this his club’s younger teams are really strong.
“We won just about every age group in Ohio from 10’s-14’s and have eight teams ranked Top 50 on AES overall,” he said. “That’s more than any club I checked in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky right now. I’m very happy with the club this year and it’s actually one of our best years; just not at 15’s and up.”
• Here’s a late report from Coast 18-Rachel, which won the 18 Freedom division at 18s Junior Nationals the weekend before last:
“This team has been so resilient and determined through a season of injuries, missed qualifiers due to Covid, and coaching changes,” noted coach Hallie Aiken. “Our captains, Keely Larson, Savanah Johnson and Lauren Dumo, have led this team both physically and mentally, which is clear by them all being voted into the All-Tournament team. As coaches we are thrilled to see them peak when it mattered and to send them off to college with a division championship.”
• Dallas Skyline Juniors is mourning the death of sophomore Sawyer Mulkey, a right side on the 16 Black team. Mulkey was killed in a single-vehicle rollover accident Wednesday morning. She had only recently gotten her driver’s license. Police said that she was not wearing a seat belt.
“I met Sawyer when I was 12 years at Camp Grady Spruce,” said McKenna Karlisch. I was so intimidated by her because she had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. She was always so happy. We ended up becoming best friends over a boy! We both thought he was so cute and would always flirt with him. We later ended up on the same club volleyball team. Sawyer always had the most interesting stories to tell us every practice. My favorite memory with Sawyer was at a tournament this year. We sang the National Anthem every game over and over again because we were so convinced it was giving us good luck. I loved Sawyer with all of my heart. She was the light to my dark days and always knew how to cheer me up.”
“We would always goof off together and make so many jokes,” said teammate Hailey Baker. “She made conditioning before practice fun. Another great memory was our numerous TikToks, I would always ask her to learn this dance and she would learn it just so she could make a TikTok with me. Sawyer was my biggest supporter.”
“I will never forget when Sawyer came up to me and gave me one of her big hugs during a game,” remembered Kennedy Smith. “She turned to our coach and went, ‘Coach Ray, she’s like my little teddy bear.’” She always called me her teddy bear because we were a good hugging height. Now Coach Ray always calls me that for her. On Tuesday night, the day before she passed, we were scrimmaging at practice. She had hurt her ankle the week before and wasn’t planning on playing. So what did she do? She sat down and started eating beef jerky on the sidelines. She ended up getting put in at one point and was freaking out because she had greasy beef jerky fingers. She always knew how to make us laugh.”
Skyline 16 Black played at Regionals this past weekend in her memory. Her club volleyball coaches reportedly walked her jersey onto the court to allow her to start in one last match on Saturday.
Our hearts go out to the Mulkey family and all who knew and loved her.
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Until next time …